The Martin Couple : a Path of Sanctity that Imparted Faith

Conference by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins,
given at Alençon, France, July 12, 2008,
to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the wedding
of the Venerable Zélie Guérin and Louis Martin
(translated by Juan Marrera and Rosemary Peters for thereseoflisieux.org
from the French text at the Web site of the diocese of Seez)

"Granite Anniversary"

It is very moving for me, and a gift from God, to be here with you in this place today. The Church of Notre-Dame in, with its flamboyant gothic portico, is a true jewel, or, as you say, a true work of lace, the Alençon-stitch in stone. They have told me that "if we want to locate God in the most beautiful place in the Church we must put him outside !"

I am grateful for your kindness that in this evening of 12 July I may be here with all of you to commemorate the 150th wedding anniversary of the Venerable Servants of God, Zélie Guérin and Louis Martin. I believe that their marriage and their life were realized with rare mastery by the true Architect of this finest masterpiece. The spouses Louis and Zélie Martin are chosen stones, true "living and precious stones sculpted by the Holy Spirit," like the finest point d’ Alençon lace for the Church of God, which is the dioceses of Sees and Bayeux-Lisieux, where they lived and died.

This is their golden anniversary in Christ, or rather thrice golden, one could say, for it has been 150 years. I think it is fair to call this anniversary "the granite anniversary," as your bishop, His Excellency Msgr. Jean-Claude Boulanger, has characterized it on the diocesan Web site. Observing the homes in the historic center of your beautiful and famous city, I have admired your particularly fine granite, and I find the image of granite the perfect one to characterize the solidity and simplicity of the love and faith of the Martin spouses.

Permit me to quote the words of a contemporary of the Martins’ daughter Thérèse, Paul Claudel (1868-1955), who, in the Prologue to his play The Tidings Brought to Mary (L’Annonce Faite á Marie) wrote :

"It is not for the stone to choose its place, but for the Master of the work to choose it. Sanctity does not consist in being stoned in the land of the Turks or kissing the mouth of a leper, but in keeping God’s commandments immediately, whether to remain in our place or to climb higher."

The Martins are saints chosen by God to be these saints, to be employed in building His Church. Sanctity consists precisely in this : to be willing to do the will of God, where He places us, whether it means staying in the same place or going up higher.

God is "thrice holy ;" God is the "Father truly holy, the fount of all holiness," who "sanctifies" the gifts and the faithful "with the effusion of his Spirit." For this reason sanctity, all sanctity is nothing but the reflection of God’s glory. In raising someone to the honors of the altar, the Church first wants to tell and to proclaim the glory and the mercy of God. At the same time, by her testimony, the Church offers believers an example to imitate and, by their intercession, a source of help to which they have recourse.

Precisely on this July 12, in 1858, at 10:00 p.m. in the city of Alençon, the Venerable Servants of God Zélie Guérin and Louis Martin contracted their civil marriage. A couple of hours later, at midnight, with a few relatives and close friends, and accompanied by Father Hurel, a priest friend, they crossed the threshold of this parish church to celebrate their union in Christ in the strictest intimacy. The night of their wedding recalls the nights of Christmas and Easter, the night which "alone among all" has earned the right to know the moment and the hour of the fact that transformed human history. Thus began the Martins’ "Song of Songs."

An "apostolic couple"

Therese, as a Carmelite, invited Céline to sing a song of gratitude for Céline’s reception of the Habit :

"Raise your eyes to your Holy Homeland,
and on thrones of honor you will see
a beloved Father … a dear Mother …
to whom you owe your immense happiness ! … [1]

The Venerable Servants of God Zélie and Louis, whom the Pope will have the joy of raising to the honors of the altar, were above all a couple united in Christ who lived the mission of transmitting their faith with passion and a rare sense of duty. Though they lived in a particular historical moment, the nineteenth century, very different from our own, they both witnessed and undertook in a wholly natural way, I would say almost a physical way, in what we call today "evangelization." We can even define them as an "apostolic couple," like Priscilla and Aquila : the spouses Louis and Zélie devoted themselves as a Christian lay couple to the apostolate of evangelization, and did so with serious conviction across the whole arc of their existence, both within and outside the domestic circle. In the lives of these "incomparable parents," as Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face called them, the "gift of self" is altogether extraordinary.

But the holiness of their lives, like their reputation for sanctity, is not limited to the period of their marriage. It was present before that. The life of both developed in the search for God, in prayer, animated by the profound desire above all to realize His will. At the outset they oriented themselves toward the consecrated religious life, seeking help and discernment. If we recounted the many acts of charity they performed right here, in the streets of your city, we would never finish being edified. Some of your [local] citizens, descendants and friends of the Martins, have been concrete witnesses to their "gift of self" and have given evidence, first for Thérèse and later for her parents, in the various informative trials by which the church proves the authenticity of the candidate’s sanctity.

When the Church gathered testimony for Thérèse, many people spoke of her parents and of their exquisitely Christian qualities. It would be enough to read Story of a Soul and to pass through the streets of this city to discover the places where Louis and Zélie grew up, received their human and Christian education, worked : Zélie, as a lacemaker (and such a lacemaker !) in the rue Saint-Blaise, and Louis, as a watchmaker and jeweler, in the rue Pont-Neuf. Here they deepened their faith and conceived of the gift of themselves to the Lord. God, however, had other plans for them, and one day here, on the Saint-Leonard bridge, their paths crossed ; they met and fell in love. Soon after they were married and became parents. And it is here, in this very church, that Thérèse, their youngest daughter, was born into Christ. The baptismal font remains the same, the true womb of the Church, Mother and maker of saints, the only womb that makes us all children of the unique Father : the only matrix of sainthood.

The incomparable mother and incomparable father[5]

The openness and welcome of the Martin home were proverbial. Not only was their house open and welcoming to whoever knocked but also the hearts of the spouses were large, warm, and always ready to give of themselves. Contrary to the bourgeois ethics of their century and their milieu, which, behind the "decor," tended to conceal the worship of money and contempt for the poor, Louis and Zélie, together with their five daughters, devoted a large part of their time and their earnings to help those in need. At her parents’ inquiry, Céline Martin, Sister Genevieve in the Carmel, testified about the love her father and mother gave to the poor :

"If thrift reigned in our house, when it came to assisting the poor my parents were positively prodigal. They went toward them, sought them out, and invited them into our house, where they were nourished, given supplies of food, clothed, and urged toward a better life. I can still see my mother hastening toward a poor old man. I might have been seven years old, but I remember this as if it were yesterday. We were passing by when we met, in the road, a man who aroused compassion. Mother sent Thérèse to give him some alms. This poor man displayed such gratitude that Thérèse began talking to him. And so Mother invited him to follow us, and we returned home. She prepared a good lunch for him—he was dying of hunger—and gave him some clothes and a pair of shoes … And she invited him to come back to us if he needed anything else." [6]

About her father, [Céline/Genevieve] added :

"He tried to find the poor work according to their condition, took them to the hospital to recover when necessary, or found them some honorable solution according to their situation. In this way he helped a family from the former nobility that had fallen into misery […] In Lisieux, at the Buissonnets, every Monday morning the poor would come to ask for charity. They always received something, whether food or money, and often it was little Thérèse who delivered the alms … One day, in church, Father had met an elderly person who seemed very poor. He brought him home and gave him a meal and all he needed. When the man rose to leave, Father asked him to bless us, Thérèse and me. We were just children, and we knelt before him and he blessed us." [7]

Extraordinary things are happening here ! We do not stand before simple goodness, but before the love of the poor lived to a heroic degree as in the Gospel of St. Matthew. [8] In this luminous couple shines something of the perennial holiness that we find all throughout the long history of the Church. I will quote a passage from a letter that Tertullian wrote to his wife. It seems to me that these sentiments were brought to exemplary fruition in Louis and Zélie, who put God before all else and at the center of their lives.

What a beautiful couple is formed by two believers who share the same hope, the same ideal, the same way of life, the same conduct of service ! Sister and brother, and servants of the same Lord, without the slightest division of body or soul, together they pray, together they kneel, and together they fast. They teach each other, encourage each other, and sustain each other mutually. Together they are in the holy gathering, together at the table of the Lord, together in trials, in persecutions, in joy. There is no danger that one might hide something from the other, that they might avoid each other, that one might be a weight upon the other. Willingly these two visit the sick and help the needy. They give charity without any bad feeling, sacrifice without haste, and perform their devotions each day without pause. They do not know the furtive sign of the cross ; they give thanks without the slightest reticence and bless each other without shame in their voices. They recite psalms and hymns, alternating verses, and offer their finest songs in praise to their God. Seeing and hearing this, Christ rejoices and sends his peace to these spouses. Wherever these two are, there also Christ resides. [8]

The reputation for sanctity

Every Pontiff who has dealt with little Thérèse has shed light on the exemplary sanctity of the Martin couple, seeing the clear relationship between their holiness and that of their daughter : Saint Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, Pius XII, Blessed John XXIII, the Servant of God Paul VI—of Father Luciano I will say more shortly—through the great Pope John-Paul II. The sanctity of these spouses is not due to the holiness of their daughter ; it is a true sanctity, personally chosen, as they followed a path of obedience to the will of God, who wants all his children to be holy as he himself is Holy. In fact, we might say that Thérèse was the first "postulator" [advocate] for the holiness of her parents : holiness in the truest sense of the word, not just a turn of phrase. Thérèse often speaks of her father in words like "holy," "servant of God," "just." She admires in her parents not only their gifts, their human touch and hard-working nature, but also their faith, hope and charity, their heroic exercise of the theological virtues. She observes all these elements, which are under examination in every canonical inquiry. If I could, I would call her a postulator.

The Church is indebted to Louis and Zélie, the true masters and models of the sanctity of Thérèse, as von Balthasar has so rightly affirmed in Sisters of the Spirit, writing

"Everything Therese achieves at the supernatural level is rooted in something she has experienced on the natural level. Nothing moved her more, perhaps, than the experience of being loved by her father and mother ; consequently, her image of God is colored by a child’s love. And it is to Louis and Zélie Martin that we owe the doctrine of the "little way" and of "spiritual childhood," for they brought to life in Thérèse of the Child Jesus that God who is more than father and mother." [8]

Von Balthasar’s observation is of capital importance. It clearly affirms that we owe the doctrine of the "Little Way," which made Thérèse a Doctor of the Church in the science of the love of God, to the holiness and the exemplary life of Louis and Zélie. Today the Church, preparing to beatify this couple, shows us that, in whatever state of life we have chosen, holiness is possible, that everyone can practice it. And it can be a great holiness. But should this not be the reality for every couple ? Is the family not called to transmit to her children the mystery of the "God who is more than father and mother" ? Is the family not perhaps a school of true humanity, a gymnasium of holiness ? It is the privileged space for forging character and knowledge. Here is the mission, from the very beginning, the duty of the couple, of the Christian family.

Upon closer reflection, the reputation for sanctity of this couple surpasses the confines of your Diocese. It is present, we could say, in the entire Catholic Community as shown in the innumerable and minutely detailed documentation built up over more than 80 years.

We owe this sign to Thérèse herself. If it is true that Story of a Soul, which was first published in 1898, is, after the Bible, the book translated into the most languages, everyone perfectly understands the vast resonance of the Martin couple in the world. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that, in terms of fame, after the Holy Family of Nazareth, the "Holy Family Martin" should occupy the second place. The Servant of God John Paul I, then Patriarch of Venice (1969-1978), in his well-known book lllustrissimi, wrote :

"When I heard that the cause of the beatification of the parents of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus had been opened, I said, ’Finally a dual cause ! St. Louis IX became a saint without his Marguerite, St. Monica without her Patrice ; Zélie Guérin, on the other hand, will be a Saint with Louis Martin, her husband, and with Thérèse, her daughter !" [9]

As early as 1925, Cardinal Antonio Vico, sent by Pius XI as his Legate to Lisieux to preside over the solemn festivities in honor of the very-recently canonized St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, said to Mother Agnès of Jesus (Pauline, the second Martin daughter) : "Now it is time to look after Papa … From Rome itself comes this commission, which I am charged to give you." [10] If the parents’ cause was not opened immediately after this, we might attribute the delay to the understandable perplexity of Mother Agnès of Jesus.

Incomparable parents

All who have taken up Story of a Soul, however briefly, have appreciated the human and spiritual dimension of these parents who created, with wisdom, the family atmosphere in which Thérèse grew up. One cannot help but love these incomparable parents. Zélie’s rich correspondence testifies to the way Mme. Martin sustained the human, Christian, and spiritual formation of all the members of her family. First of all, there is her brother, Isidore, before and after his marriage ; then her sister-in-law, Céline Fournet ; and then, of course, her own daughters. Not one of her letters fails to manifest the presence of God, not a formal presence or one based on convenience of circumstance but a constant reference for all aspects of life. A correspondence that testifies to a delightful attention to everyone’s well-being and that now has a global reach. A growth that is full and valid because she always placed God as her center and focus. Louis, her husband, was less talkative and did not like to write. He never refused to testify openly about his faith, and he had no fears about the mockery to which he was subjected. In his marital life, at home with his five daughters, in the management of his watchmaker-and-jeweler business, and also with his friends, on the road or traveling, in all circumstances, for him “God was served first.”

A missionary family from the start, when, in France, soon after, there arose the work of the Propagation of the Faith by Pauline Jaricot and that began the missionary movements of the nineteenth century. We know that the Martin parents signed up all their daughters in the Work of the Holy Childhood (Thérèse’s inscription dated January 12, 1882, is preserved), and they contributed generously for the construction of new churches in foreign missions. For Thérèse, being able to participate in the activities of the Work of the Holy Childhood certainly helped to develop her missionary zeal. Louis and Zélie were saints who produced a saint. They were missionary spouses who not only participated in the missionary spirit of their time but also raised up for the Church the Patroness of the Universal Missions (1927).

Zélie and Louis are saints, not so much for the methods or means they chose to participate in evangelization, which were evidently those of the Church and the society of their times ; rather, they are saints because they lived and imparted the faith within their family in a serious and committed way. They evangelized their children through the example of their lives as a couple, through their works and teaching in the heart of the family. In this regard, it is enough to remember that Thérèse herself wrote in Story of a Soul about the fascination that her father and mother had over her.

“All the details of my Mother’s illness are still present to me and I recall especially the last weeks she spent on earth. Céline and I "were like two poor little exiles, for every morning Mme. Leriche" [11] came to get us and brought us to her home where we spent the day. One morning we didn’t have time to say our prayers and during the trip Céline whispered : "Should we tell her we didn’t say our prayers ?" "Oh ! yes," I answered. So very timidly Céline told Mme. Leriche, who said : "Well, my little girls, you will say them," and placing us both in a large room, she left. . . . Céline looked at me and we said : "Oh ! this is not like Mama . . . She always had us say our prayers with her. . . ." [12] Her father, “the King of France and Navarre,” as she loved calling him, exercised a beautiful spiritual inspiration for her. His gentlemanly ways inspired veneration and respect. “What shall I say of the winter evenings at home, especially the Sunday evenings ? Ah ! how I loved, after the game of checkers was over, to sit with Céline on Papa’s knees . . . . . He used to sing, in his beautiful voice, airs that filled the soul with profound thoughts, or else, rocking us gently, he recited poems that taught the eternal truths. . . . . Then we all went upstairs to say our night prayers together and the little Queen was alone near her King, having only to look at him to see how the Saints pray . . .” [13]

Christian Initiation in the Family

We can define Manuscript A as “the manuscript that [describes] Thérèse’s family-based Christian initiation.” A process conducted with the same seriousness of purpose as her schooling. Faith, in the Martin household, was not just a series of rules to be followed, but a lived faith. Throughout Manuscript A Thérèse thanked not only her parents, by then deceased (her mother in 1877 and her father in 1894), but also her older sisters.

I wish to underscore here the great merits not only of the parents but also of these elder sisters, and, therefore, of the whole family. The parents taught themselves the teachings of the Church, and then taught all their children. And it is a telling thing that they deserve the credit for the most illustrious of their daughters, who, after being taught and molded by these “incomparable parents,” became Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, and who not long ago (1997) was declared a Doctor of the Church. She, who was taught, now teaches.

With the beatification of this family, this is the challenge the Church presents today to all Christian families. They were not simply instruments who were carrying the faith like an aqueduct transports water, but the depositum fidei, an “exchange house” of faith, transmitted and enriched by their own personal faith experience, of hope and charity. They did not transmit faith as a well-worn tradition, something sketchy and abstract, but as something alive : not a faith like an inheritance left by the dead, no, but through baptism, they grafted onto their children the living and vital current of the Church, never substituting for the Church, but with the Church and in the Church. They worked together with the Church in perfect harmony. I want to observe again that the sanctity of this couple is found to be congruent with Vatican II and other Documents of the Church. I think above all of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (“Joy and Hope”) in its chapter on the “Sanctity of Marriage and the Family.” [14]

Preceded by the example and the communal prayer of the parents, the children and all those living within the family circle will open more easily to the feelings of humanity and find more readily the road of health and sanctity. How can we not see how much the Martin family aligns with this text ? But all this can surprise us when one dreams of a time so distant from ours. It’s been 150 years, July 12, 1858, in France during the Second Empire. We, men and women of the Third Millennium, have difficulty imagining everyday life in that setting, without electricity, without heat, no radio or television, none of the modern means of communication that characterize modern life today. But we here, today, we judge sanctity, not the distance that separates us from their testimony ; we judge sanctity, not the form through which they presented it to us. Their sanctity is distant from us in form, but not in substance, content, or doctrine. The Martins kept the best wine till the last (John 2:10). Just like the light from the Church’s documents, this couple may be presented as a family engaged in evangelizing their children. In their time they participated in an evangelization that seems awkward, perhaps, in its catechism and precepts. The doctrine of the Church was taught not only in parishes but also in the family ; one learned the truths of the faith by heart. In everything the Church followed the method of teaching common at that time, in which memory played an important role. The Martin family are witnesses in their home—with their children and all around them, their parents and their servants—of the role of evangelization, not as individuals but as a couple ; all the family has a mission and a task to carry out.

Paul VI writes in his encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi (71) about matters that we see lived out by the Martin family :

“At the core of the evangelistic apostolate of the laity, it is impossible not to underscore the evangelizing role of the family. It has well deserved, at different moments in history, the beautiful name “the domestic church” sanctioned by Vatican II. That means that, in each Christian family, we should find the diverse aspects of the whole Church. The family, like the Church, should be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and where the Gospel shines. At the heart, therefore, of each family conscious of its mission, all the members of the family evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only transmit the Gospel to their children but also receive this same Gospel, lived profoundly, from them. Through such a family many other families are evangelized wherever they are found.”

Despite the family moves, each house they occupied (the one on rue du Pont-Neuf, the one on rue Saint-Blaise, and Les Buissonnets) was a “small domestic Church” where the Martins are again in harmony with our times.For their five children (four others died very young), the family of Zélie and Louis was a privileged place to experience love and the transmission of the faith. In their home, in the intimacy of the family hearth and domestic life, each gave and received. Amidst their many professional worries the parents knew, the one and the other, how to teach the first lessons of the faith to their own children from infancy. They were the first teachers who began to form their children in prayer, in the knowledge and love of God, in showing the children how to pray alone and together, in accompanying them to Mass and visits to the Blessed Sacrament. They taught the children to pray, not merely by telling them to pray but by transforming their home into a “school of prayer.” They taught them how important it is to stay with Jesus, to listen to the Gospel of which we speak today. Moreover, the spiritual life, cultivated from a young age, as was the case for Zelie and Louis, was nourished at the source of parish life. They were faithful readers of The Liturgical Year by Dom Guéranger, a book Thérèse appreciated well and one she discovered first precisely at home.

Dear brothers and sisters, Louis and Zélie reveal to us a simple truth, a very simple truth : Christian sanctity is not a goal for the few. It is truly a common vocation for all, for each baptized person. Louis and Zélie tell us simply that sanctity concerns the wife, the husband, the children, the worries of work, and also the realm of sexuality. The saint is not a superman or superwoman ; the saint is a true person. On April 4, 1957, Céline, known in the Carmel as Sister Géneviève of the Holy Face, testifying at the process about the heroic virtue of her father, spoke of “the beauty of a conjugal life lived entirely for the good God alone, without egoism or withdrawal into the self. If the servant of God wanted many children, it was to give them to God without reservation. And all this within the simplicity of a life that was ordinary, hard-working, and filled with hardships welcomed with abandonment and confidence in the Divine Will. [15]

I finish by repeating the words which conclude the Declaration of the Virtues of Louis and Zélie on October 13, 1957 :

We have before us a couple, and a family, who have lived and acted in complete conformity with the Gospel, concerned only with living out at each moment of the day the plan God prepared for them. In seeking and hearing His voice, they sought only to attain perfection. Louis and Zélie are not protagonists (heralds ?) of fiery movements or of a particular, specific apostolate, but they lived the ordinary life of their whole family always lit by the divine and the supernatural. That is the central aspect, available to anyone, offered for the families of today to imitate. With the Martin family placed before us, we can receive nourishment, strength, and orientation to avoid the modern force of secularization and thus to rise above many sorrows and to see the gift of conjugal love and, with it, the gift of fatherhood and motherhood in their proper light as the Gift of God beyond measure.

[1] from Thérèse’s poem « Song of Gratitude of Jesus’ Fiancée » in The Poetry of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. tr. Donald Kinney, O.C.D. Washington, D.C. : ICS Publications, p. 86.

[2] Ms. A, 4v

[3] LT 91.

[4] Positio 1, Section 603, p. 420 [from the documents of the process of beatification].

[5] Positio I, §56, p. 41.

[6] 5. Matthew 25, verses 31-46, especially verse 40 : « you have done it to Me. »

[7] 6. TERTULLIAN, To my wife, II, 8-9 : PL 1,1302B-1304A ; translated E.-A. De Genoudet.

[8] Sisters in the Spirit : Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of Dijon. Ignatius Press, 1992 : p. 125. Cited in the papers of the beatification process, Summarium Documentorum, XXVIII, Roma, 1987, p. 1042.

[9] Illustrissimi : Letters from Pope John Paul I. (Little Hills Press, Australia : 1990). The book is a collection of « open letters » written by Msgr. Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, two and a half years before he was elected Pope John Paul I. He wrote these letters to figures from history or mythology, writers, figures in Italian literature , and to the saints of the Church.

[10] cf. the papers of the beatification process at Summarium Documentorum, op. cit., p. 1138.

[11] Wife of Aldolphe Leriche, only nephew of Mr. Martin ; it is to the Leriches that he had given up the watchmaking-jewelry business at 15 rue du Pont-Neuf.

[12] Story of a Soul, Ms. A, 19v.

[13] Story of a Soul, Ms. A, 18r.

[14] GS 48, 2nd part, chapter 1, no. 48, section 3.

[15] Procès, Vol. II, Summarium, page 22, ad. 6) Diocèse de Seéz.